Is Freelance Journalism Obsolete?

Cohen, N.S. (2016) Writers’ Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age.

At a time when, to quote Dr Rasmus Kleis Nielsen of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, ‘literally tens of thousands of journalists are losing their jobs’ and freelancing is becoming a permanent way of working for many creative workers, the publication of Writers’ Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age could not be timelier.

Writers’ Rights is a ‘study of the working conditions of freelance journalists’ in English-speaking Canada, the USA and the UK, an account of the context in which freelance journalists work and an assessment of the organisational strategies which they have used to deal with their economic circumstances and powerlessness vis-à-vis publishers (6). Under the term ‘freelance journalist’, Cohen – a former one herself – includes reporters as well as producers of non-fiction of all types, including features and corporate material. The study is based on the author’s own online survey of 206 Canadian freelance journalists in 2010, semi-structured interviews with staff and organisers within journalistic organisations and an interdisciplinary literature review (19-20).

Cohen begins by describing the working conditions of freelance journalists, which have deteriorated markedly with the arrival of digital journalism. Although one could argue that journalists are now living in a ‘golden age’ because of the explosion of online publications, Cohen provides a convincing exposé of worsening working conditions, including low or non-existent fees relative to colleagues on permanent contracts, inconsistent payment schedules, exclusion from social benefits due to the self-employed status of the freelance worker and the aggressive pursuit of copyright by publishers that leads to writers surrendering their  ‘moral right’ to be recognised as the author of a work via a byline.

In short, it is becoming very difficult to earn a living as a freelance journalist. Indeed, other sources would seem to corroborate Cohen’s assessment.  As a recent survey for the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) shows, the mean salary of freelance journalists in the UK is £19,499 per annum (5), with 44 per cent reporting that they earn less than £15,000 per year (6).

But why should the comparative immiseration of freelance journalists matter? For Cohen, it matters because the way in which freelance journalists are paid influences the types of journalism that are produced. Where freelance journalists are paid by the word, per feature or work on a pro bono basis in order to establish their brand, investigative journalism, freelance war reporting or in-depth feature writing become prohibitively expensive. A recent survey by Project Word of freelance investigative reporters hammers the point home by reporting that 55 per cent of survey respondents ‘failed to recoup their expenditures from story revenue, grants, or donations’ (5). Cohen is therefore correct to argue that ‘journalism is a form of communication essential for meaningful participation in democratic life’ (7), and that its viability as a practice is being seriously compromised by the ways in which journalists are remunerated for their work.

Cohen is also persuasive when describing how falling payments for freelance work can lead to the fusion of work and leisure time as writers strive to maximise every hour of the day to create value (128). The representation of the journalist as a worker who is always tuned in to the possibility of a saleable story may be an ideal type – if of the negative variety. By contrast, the NCTJ survey shows that 43 per cent of respondents were working part time and 87 per cent thought that their hours were reasonable (5). The NCTJ survey respondents also didn’t tend to view their freelance status as an unwanted interlude between one permanent contract and another, with 82 per cent reporting that they were not seeking to leave freelance journalism (6). However, apparently contradictory survey results from other sources do not necessarily invalidate Cohen’s assessment of the economic plight of freelance journalists. As she herself acknowledges, freelance journalists can be characterised by variation in terms of their earnings, working experiences and levels of job satisfaction (15).

Cohen’s account of what it is like to be a freelance journalist is understandably influenced by the concepts she uses, which are drawn from Marxist political economy. Although she recognises that many freelance journalists conceive of themselves as entrepreneurs, she argues that they do not, in most cases, accumulate capital or own the means of production which are vital ‘in order to bring products to market’ (26). For Cohen, journalists occupy a contradictory class location between the working class and the petty bourgeoisie at the economic level and between the working class and the bourgeoisie at the intellectual level (35). In other words, many freelance journalists may endure penury, but identify with the objectives of the publisher.

Rather unsurprisingly, therefore, the book concludes by making the argument that freelance journalists can improve their economic situation by mass unionisation. In order to buttress her argument, Cohen refers to the Canadian experience, which shows that writers’ organisations can make tangible gains for their members. She therefore references a number of organisations including a literary agency (the Canadian Writers Group), a professional association (the Professional Writers Association of Canada) and a union (the Canadian Media Guild) that have indeed secured improvements for their members. The collective agreements that the Canadian Media Guild have secured with a range of employers is one noteworthy example as is their affiliation with the 700,000 member strong Communication Workers of America.

However, what is clear is that attempts by freelance journalists to organise collectively have been hampered by the sheer number of writers’ organisations. Cohen recognises this by identifying the different attitudes that freelance journalists have towards collective organisation. Should a writers’ organisation be a professional association offering services to its members like a mutual society? Or should it be a literary agency representing the most prominent writers? Or should the organisation be a union and engage in collective bargaining on behalf of a mass membership base? Cohen plumps for the latter option (230-31). Although she is correct to suggest that creating a large union might be possible, I’m less convinced that an organisation of this type would survive in the medium to long term for the reasons Cohen herself recognises: freelance journalists are a diverse group with differing aspirations and ideological positions that are not necessarily compatible. How, for example, could a union hold together a membership that includes journalists who identify as small business people and writers who think of themselves as creative workers with an affiliation to the labour movement? Yes, one could argue that the entrepreneurial language that some journalists use masks the reality of the power imbalance between freelance journalists and publishers, but the fact that some journalists regard themselves as entrepreneurs must surely influence the types of collective organisations that they join.

Although I’m less optimistic than Cohen about the possibilities for organising such a diverse range of creative workers within a super union, Writers’ Rights is an invaluable addition to the literature on self-employment in general and freelance journalism in particular. Lucid, informative and passionate in arguing that freelance journalists can both defend their profession and produce journalism which enriches the democratic debate, this book will be read by practising journalists and students of the media alike.

Review originally published in LSE Review of Books, March 2017

Being a Scholar in the Digital Era

Daniels, J., Thistlethwaite, P. (2016) Being a Scholar in the Digital Era: Transforming Scholarly Practice for the Public Good

The New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, has described professors as ‘some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world’ who nonetheless, in the majority of cases, ‘just don’t matter in today’s great debates’. Provocative? Perhaps. Anti-intellectual? I don’t believe so; although one could perhaps more charitably argue that some academics may have inadvertently marginalised themselves, either because they don’t know enough about alternative modes of digital media – podcasts, blogs, twitter, altmetrics and so forth – or because they reject these modes of communication due to the association between digital technology and the marketisation of higher education.

For anyone who falls into either of these categories, a possible solution could be to read Jessie Daniels and Polly Thistlethwaites’s new book, which argues that scholars should move from scholarly practices associated with the pre-internet age to what they characterise as ‘digital scholarship’. What is meant by this is the subject of Being a Scholar in the Digital Era, but in broad terms the authors advocate open models of knowledge production and dissemination between academic and non-academic partners using the most appropriate digital technologies to maximise the impact and dissemination of research.

The book is most definitely not a technical treatise, which is a point in its favour if the intention is to persuade readers who may be intimidated by digital technology to avail of these tools in their own work. What they do instead is describe how digital technologies have been used in their own and others’ research, providing copious references for readers who want to know the technical detail.

But why should scholars become ‘digital scholars’? In short, what’s the problem? For Daniels and Thistlethwaite,  the current social science publishing landscape is populated by a small sub-set of publishers, university presses with highly specialist and therefore very small print runs and similarly specialist journals that are not accessible to anyone without access to a university library. Moreover, such a model of publication, with its infinitesimally small readership, is no longer sensible or rational in an age of ‘comparatively cheap, digital production and distribution of scholarly work’ (4).

In contrast, what the authors envisage is a situation where academics use digital platforms to co-produce research with community activists and communications professionals like journalists, film and documentary makers. One particularly noteworthy example that the authors refer to is Morris Justice: A Public Science Project in the Bronx, New York City, where researchers worked with residents to ‘create an active social media campaign in solidarity with court cases, legislation, and community organizing’ (23). What is particularly noteworthy is the way in which the Morris Justice project and an artists’ collective employed ‘spectacular messaging’ using a light projector to project survey results onto an apartment building (23).

One interesting consequence of Daniels and Thistlethwaites’ approach is that the ubiquity of digital publishing platforms like WordPress means that the traditional litmus test of research quality is no longer publication but the response produced by the readership (4). But will opening academic work to open peer review produce research that is rejected by more conventional academics? Daniels and Thistlethwaite don’t believe so, and they buttress their case with reference to a number of persuasive examples. They refer, for example, to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s book on Planned Obsolescence, which was published in draft form in open peer review before being conventionally published by an academic press (3).

In a similar vein, the authors contend that it is possible to conduct research which is academically respectable, has impact on policy and a wide readership. One only has to recall that the ‘Reading the Riots’ study of the summer riots in England in 2011  –  which Daniels and Thistlethwaite describe as ‘a hybrid form of social science research and investigative journalism’ (25)  –  had a combined radio and television audience of over 30 million people on ‘first phase launch day’ and that the study led to the publication of conventionally peer-reviewed publications too (Newburn 2015).

Unsurprisingly, the authors are particularly persuasive advocates of digital scholarship when they concentrate on learning gained from their own involvement with the recently concluded JustPublics@365: a project designed to bring academics, journalists and activists together to ‘address social justice issues through the use of social media’ (18). Beginning in January 2013 at the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY), the JustPublics@365 team members aimed to create information that had an impact outside of academia but which was robust from a scholarly perspective. Referring to their work across areas as diverse as ‘stop and frisk’ (31) the ‘public health alternatives to criminalising drug use’ (32) and disability studies (35), Daniels and Thistlethwaite describe how they used podcasts, project blogs and downloadable eBooks to ‘open up knowledge’ beyond the academy. One particularly noteworthy example is the Social Media Toolkit, which will be of use to academics who may, as the project website says, be ‘perplexed about how to share their research’ with people beyond the university.

The authors are not, however, mere utopians who regard digital technology as an unqualified blessing. On the contrary, they argue that tools like massive open online courses (MOOCs) have not delivered on their potential to open up learning to students without a history of prior educational attainment (39-48). Moreover, they are also fully aware of the link between impact measurements and the rise of ‘audit culture’ (115).

This is an excellent book that offers a concise and well-written description of how digital technology has been used to produce robust and genuinely impactful research. The book is short and, in spite of the fact that its focus is on digital scholarship in North American contexts, it will appeal to anyone who has been inspired by scholar-activists like W.E.B. Du Bois or C Wright Mills (24), but who would like to know how to become a scholar-activist in the digital era. The authors are also particularly good when charting the ‘convergence’ between disciplines and practices – academia, activism and journalism – that have been conventionally regarded as discrete. All things considered, this book is a fascinating and accessible read.

Review originally published in LSE Review of Books and LSE Impact of the Social Sciences, December 2016

Creative Research Communication

Wilkinson, C., Weitkamp, E. (2016) Creative Research Communication: Theory and Practice

The philosopher A.C. Grayling has characterised academics as specialists in a small area of intellectual endeavour who publish their research in journals for other specialists in a language that is often inaccessible to the uninitiated (2004, 100). One could be more charitable and concede that academics do try to communicate beyond the circle of their academic peers, but that communication outside of academia can be difficult and perplexing due to the sheer number of options available. So where should the researcher who wants to get their message ‘out there’ begin? Clare Wilkinson and Emma Weitkamp’s book, Creative Research Communication: Theory and Practice, could be one possible starting point.

The authors contend that this book has been written for ‘public engagement practitioners, policymakers, science communication students and those based in research settings who are seeking to communicate to and engage others with their research’ (14). This is an assessment with which I agree, as Wilkinson and Weitkamp have written a text that is extremely easy to read and therefore accessible to both non-academics and academics across the arts, humanities, social and natural sciences. The authors almost always eschew jargon, adding to the appeal of the book, and the sections on theory usefully complement rather than crowd out the practical advice that they offer to the reader. Wilkinson and Weitkamp also make a persuasive case for the view that it is possible to present research to a lay audience which does not distort the complexity and nuance of scholarly endeavour.

The authors’ key message is therefore an optimistic one: academics can maintain high standards whilst at the same time recognising the diverse needs of an often very plural audience. The use of the word ‘creative’ in the book’s title should also reassure those readers who may be under the impression that research communication involves the use of an invariable and universally applicable set of procedures. On the contrary, Wilkinson and Weitkamps’ reservations about metrics, together with their injunction that readers should ‘engage in ways that work for you as an individual researcher’ (10), will no doubt be reassuring to all.

The book is divided into three parts. The first section introduces the reader to ‘the context of research communication’ (15). What then follows is a fascinating if concise description of the role of research communication over a four-hundred-year period, which describes the process of research professionalisation, the creation of learned societies, public lectures and the role of museums and exhibitions. Brief references are made to such august institutions as the Royal Society, the Royal Institution, the Lunar Society and Mechanics’ Institutes. I particularly enjoyed the historical tour and would have appreciated more detail, although I recognise that the authors are trying to chart a middle way between the theoretical and the practical.

The first part of the book ends with advice on how to include people in research as either participants or the audience of research. Again, the inclusion of this information is laudable as the authors stress that ‘the public’ should not be thought of as one homogenous group, but rather that ‘participants in research communication come from a variety of backgrounds, communities, experiences and perspectives’ so that ‘the idea of one exclusive and singular public is therefore problematic’ (34). Praiseworthy too is their recognition that the ‘deficit model’ – ‘whereby […] the perceived deficiencies in people’s knowledge around complex research areas created drivers for the receipt of increased information’ – is no longer adequate (39).

Lest all this seems excessively theoretical, the second part provides solid practical advice on face-to-face communication, artist-researcher collaborations, digital research communication, the use of social media and citizen-science projects as well as research which has been initiated by the community. Indeed, the authors manage to reference projects that illustrate their advice that are not only multi-disciplinary but trans-disciplinary. In short, there is sure to be something here which will wet the reader’s appetite. In particular, I thought that their advice on how to ‘pitch’ and write articles for newspapers and magazines was especially useful, although some detail on how to work with the traditional broadcast media would have been welcome too.

The authors also make information easy to find by availing of boxed-out sections that are interspersed throughout the text, whilst further grounding their advice by referring to real world case studies. Box 7.4, for example, provides ‘Top tips for academic bloggers’ (145), and case study 7.2 describes Science Circle – ‘a space to talk about research and education in the virtual world Second Life’ (156).  Useful references for further reading are also included at the end of each chapter and in a dedicated reference section, together with a plethora of relevant internet links.

Although obviously passionate about their subject, the authors are not dewy-eyed about the communication approaches which they discuss but, on the contrary, deal with a range of problems that may arise. Providing a space in which people can engage with research can have many benefits as the authors attest, including improving research quality, increasing public trust and awareness in research as well as making people more predisposed to being involved in future projects (174). However, engagement can be frustrating for those researchers who may not feel that they are setting agendas – particularly in highly specialised areas of research where it may be difficult for the public to understand the nature of a researcher’s work.  Conversely, the public may feel that engagement could be more accurately characterised as a one-directional information and communication exercise as opposed to an authentic two-directional partnership between different stakeholders, all of whom have some intellectual and emotional investment in the research project (173-75). Engagement therefore presents challenges for the researcher. The authors recognise this, and their pragmatism can only add credibility to the text.

The third and final part examines impact, ethics and dissemination. Wilkinson and Weitkamp introduce the reader to formative, process and summative evaluation, basic research methods, analytical techniques and free analysis programmes. Box 10.3 also includes invaluable information on evaluation frameworks (222). Their discussion then concludes with an examination of research impact, which will be of special interest to academics, although the authors convincingly problematise this concept rather than offer easy solutions. One only has to think of how difficult it would be to measure the existential, ‘transformative’ impact of the arts on the individual to appreciate that they have a point (228). This discussion will undoubtedly appeal to academics, service evaluators, policymakers and any reader of research. A similar comment applies to the chapter on ethics with its fascinating aside on the difficulties of informed consent in situations where the medium- to long-term impact of some research may be unknowable (238-39), whilst the final discussion on dissemination is equally engaging, with Box 12.4 providing a useful list of academic journals for research communicators (263).

Wilkinson and Weitkamp have managed to write a book that successfully blends the theoretical with the practical. They never talk down to the reader, and it is for this stylistic reason, as well as for the interesting, relevant content, that Creative Research Communication should be read by anyone with an interest in research. This is an excellent book that can be read from cover to cover or used as a reference text.

Review originally published in LSE Review of Books, September 2016

The ESRC, 50 Years On

Walker, D. (2015) Exaggerated Claims? The ESRC, 50 Years On

This book looks at the role of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and its relationship with academics, non-university researchers, policy-makers and government.

David Walker, a journalist and former head of policy at the Academy of Social Sciences, argues that the ESRC’s founders were inspired by a vision where policy and practice-relevant social science research would be produced by both university and non-university research centres. In contrast, what materialised, so Walker contends, is a council which often funds knowledge which is “antinomian, autistic and disconnected” from the other parts of the “state apparatus” which conduct research.

Walker does recognise that Michael Young and Andrew Shonfield – the first two chairs of the ESRC – were keen advocates of “social science as policy science”. He also convincingly argues that consumers of research do not necessarily give priority to academic work but rather make use of all information that is materially relevant to their field of interest. The implication of this view is that the focus of research projects should be less influenced by what researchers themselves find interesting and more influenced by a genuine, multidirectional partnership between the various constituencies who are interested in research.

This erudite, eminently quotable and thoroughly iconoclastic book tells the story of opportunities lost; it is not an account of unequivocal failure. It is also about much more than the ESRC, as Walker has issued a clarion call to all those who believe in interdisciplinary working.

Review originally published in Reviews. Significance, 13:4 45, doi: 10.1111/j.1740-9713.2016.00943.x